Centering Prayer vs. Authentic Christian Contemplation

While searching for a parish for her son who is in the military, MB was happy to find a parish near his military base. However, while browsing through the parish’s most recent bulletin, she noticed a recommendation by the pastor about a presentation on centering prayer given by a Trappist monk named Fr. William Menninger. MB asks: “Does the Catholic Church condone this “prayer”?  I wonder if [the pastor] has investigated this action before recommending it to his flock? . . . At any rate, I will not recommend this parish to my son.”

MB was definitely following the prompting of the Holy Spirit when she posed this question.

While the Church has issued no official statement either for or against centering prayer, her core teachings on prayer and contemplation are very much at odds with the components of this New Age version which incorporates Transcendental Meditation (TM) with some Christian practices.

The best way to comprehend the problems with Centering prayer is to first understand the meaning and purpose of authentic Christian prayer.

WHAT IS CHRISTIAN PRAYER?

Unlike centering prayer, which is essentially an exercise designed to “blank the mind” (they refer to it as “silence” or “communing”), authentic Christian prayer is “the raising of one’s mind and heart to God” (CCC 2590). It is essentially a dialogue with God and its object is to bring us to a deeper love of God and neighbor.

Naturally, this requires an ascetical struggle to purify ourselves of our inherent selfishness because, as Jesus said, only the pure of heart shall see God. The closer we want to get to Him, the purer we must become.

This is why, as our commitment to the Gospel deepens, so does our prayer life progress through four distinct stages of prayer. These stages begin with vocal prayer and advance into mental prayer and meditation, followed by acquired and then infused contemplation which culminates in transforming union with God.

Because infused contemplation is a pure gift from God and cannot be achieved by any particular prayer technique, the only way to prepare ourselves to receive this gift, should God decide to give it, is to practice the kind of self-denial that occurs naturally as one deepens their commitment to the Gospel and love for God.

WHAT IS CENTERING PRAYER?

Having said all this, we must now turn our attention to centering prayer.

Even though it “talks a good game” in its literature about being concerned with furthering one’s relationship with God, the actual methods used are almost entirely involved with sitting in a mental void for 20 minutes hardly a way to conduct a relationship with anyone, let alone God! (The attached brochure is a perfect example:  http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/site/DocServer/MethodCP2008.pdf?docID=121)

This same brochure also explains that its purpose is “to facilitate the development of Contemplative Prayer by preparing our faculties to receive this gift.”

However, there is no tradition in our Church calling for the “preparation of the faculties” through concentration exercises for contemplation. As stated above, because authentic contemplation is essentially an exercise of love, the only preparation needed is the purification of the heart.

But these problems with centering prayer become more understandable when we briefly review the history of this practice.

HISTORY OF CENTERING PRAYER

Centering prayer was created by three Trappist monks, Father Thomas Keating, Fathers William Menninger and Father M. Basil Pennington from St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. As Fr. Keating explains in his book Intimacy with God, between the years of 1961 and 1981, the monks held dialogues with Buddhist and Hindu representatives as well as a Zen master who gave week-long retreats to the monks once or twice a year for nine years.

After exploring these traditions, Keating asked his monks if they could devise a way to win Christians back to the faith who were “going to the east for what could be found at home.” He suggested that they put the Christian tradition into a form that might appeal to people who had been instructed in an Eastern technique with the hopes it might inspire them to return to their Christian roots.

Centering prayer was born.

CHRISTIAN, HINDU AND NEW AGE MARKS

This explains why the marks of both Christian and Hindu prayer are so obvious in the centering prayer technique.

For instance, according to their literature, in centering prayer, a person chooses a sacred word (another name for the Hindu mantra) which becomes a symbol of their intention to consent to God’s presence within. After finding a comfortable position, they close the eyes and begin to repeat the mantra whenever thoughts, feelings or reflections enter the mind. This method of prayer is practiced 20 minutes in the morning and evening.

This practice employs the same techniques as TM, which is also practiced in 20 minute intervals and uses a mantra to erase thoughts.

According to Margaret Feaster, writing in Homiletics and Pastoral Review, New Age elements are also present in both TM and centering prayer which claim that a person will pick up vibrations during meditation and teaches them how to reach an altered level of consciousness. They also share the common goal of finding one’s god-center. (See http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=6337&CFID=29076997&CFTOKEN=63001320)

CENTERING PRAYER CAN BE A DETRIMENT

The problem for the Christian who truly wants to advance in prayer is that the early stages of authentic contemplation tend to be subtle and hard to spot. They involve moments during prayer when the Lord may inspire a person to cease their vocal prayer and sit quietly in His presence for a few moments before continuing. If we are blocking all thoughts, feelings and perceptions, we will be pushing aside these gentle instructions from the Holy Spirit. They also come in “waves” which involve fluctuations in intensity when the Lord’s touches are more or less apparent. This is why it is essential that a person remain aware and responsive during prayer rather than focusing their attention on keeping the mind blank.

Father Thomas Dubay, an internationally renowned retreat master and expert on the Catholic contemplative tradition, says that if you are in contemplative prayer, centering prayer is a hindrance, because if it’s real contemplative prayer, God is giving you the knowing, loving, desiring, thirsting, etc. and your method of trying to work with a mantra is impeding what He’s trying to give.

This is just one of many reasons why centering prayer and TM are radically at odds with the purpose and goal of authentic Christian meditation. The mind-emptying techniques prescribed by these forms of meditation are not designed to bring about an ever-deepening relationship with God and love of neighbor. Rather, the intent is to create a kind of mental void which is described in the Catechism as “an erroneous notion of prayer. (CCC 2726)

“Naturally we want to forget the world in order to concentrate solely on God, but the various emptying techniques don’t go this far,” Cardinal Ratzinger writes about practices such as TM in his 1989 Letter on “Some Aspects of Christian Meditation”. “They stop at the ’emptying.’ The emptying becomes the goal.”

While centering prayer can certainly be used as a prelude to contemplative prayer, proponents need to revamp their teaching to include the real steps required, such as the transition through the different stages of prayer, all of which require ever deepening conversion.

One should also be aware of proponents of centering prayer who claim that a similar form of prayer can be found in the writings of major contributors to the Christian contemplative tradition, including John Cassian, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, St. Francis de Sales, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Lisieux and Thomas Merton.

No reputable authority on the Catholic contemplative tradition supports these statements. Experts say any similarities between the writings of these saints and centering prayer that may exist is ambiguous at best.

The bottom line is that authentic contemplation can never be reduced to a technique. It is a natural development that occurs over time and is totally dependent upon a person’s willingness to die to self and embrace Christ on an ever-deepening level.

For a more thorough treatment of this subject, please see the book by Johnnette Benkovic entitled, The New Age Counterfiet, and the booklet on centering prayer available in our Learn to Discern: Is it Christian of New Age? series by clicking on the “New Age Resources” button on the navigation bar above.

Send your New Age question to newage@womenofgrace.com

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